Thursday, July 30, 2009

On Death and Dying and Sex

Sex has been the last thing on my mind in the last week. It was a week ago today that I heard the fateful but expected news from my mother-in-law: her husband of 50 years had just died.

Sue and her mother are both "soldier on" types, and soldier on they did, with sadness, yes, and a few tears, and certainly a lot of lost sleep. But mostly it was graciouness, smiles, poise and grace. They did really well.

The funeral was a memorable affair. So odd! Held at a funeral parlour rather than a church, the ceremony was a bizarre mish-mash of Christian, new-age, secular and Buddhist philosophies. I couldn't get my head around it. A service conducted from the point of view of any of those philosophies would have been fine with me -- it would have felt honest and earnest. But a service from the point of view of ALL of those philosophies felt... a disengenuous, confused mish-mash of an affair. The celebrant had only met with the family for 10 minutes before feeling she had enough information to deliver her homily about the man whom she never met. Cliché after cliché came out. The best was: "He packed more into his 72 years than most pack into a lifetime!"


The service was, of course, more than just this. It was a place for the family to mourn, a place and time for visitors and extended family to come together, a time where we could all get up and say what we admired and remembered fondly about "dad". I shouldn't encapsulate the whole experience by one thing that I found a bit off-putting.

And so it was, I found myself thinking, about Stan's life.

Everyone kept saying all these wonderful things about him, remembering the good times. There was a tinge of realism to the family's comments, though the celebrant really lionized him. But I kept thinking, "and he was a sexual abuser."

And it was tempting for me at times to think that all those good things that were said were a load of codswallop. That here people were honouring this man who was nothing more than a pedophile.

I looked across the room and saw his two granddaughters, both of whom he had abused. Sue was next to me, and all three had tears welling up in their eyes. Sue's sister was a row back, and I couldn't see her face. She, too, had been his victim.

It drove home to me that even a serial abuser like Stan is more than "just" an abuser. He was, also, a working man, a husband, a father. Like the service itself, Stan could not be said to be all bad or all good. He was a part of our family, and there will be an emptiness at future gatherings, where his laugh should have been. And he was also a pedophile who, thankfully, will never again damage another young soul.

It's amazing to think that it's not just "young souls" that he may have damaged, either. Stan's abuse has put a strain on my relationship with Sue, which in turn has had an effect on our children. If we can't sort it out, then it may be that his self indulgent actions from 30 years ago could result in our divorce, and have a major effect on our children -- and on their future relationships. Where does it end?

How many abusers, like Stan, go to their grave as a family secret -- never publicly accused. Never pilloried. Never divorced or even completely estranged from their victims. The secret, I suspect, will die with Sue, her sister, and the (now adult) grandchildren. Will anyone else ever find out?

One of Stan's uncles came and stayed with us. He was the picture of sweetness, helpfulness, and unobtrusiveness. He is a very elderly man, now, and very affectionate to our children, giving them hugs and pats on the back, motivated, no doubt, by warmth and affection.

Was that what motivated his brother, Stan? A need for affection that knew no quenching? Not a power trip, not a sick fetish, but a profound thirsting to be loved? A thirst so big that it turned fatherly affection to damaging, hurtful, amorous acts?

I make absolutely no apology for the man or his actions. More than once while he was still alive did I entertain fantasies of confronting him -- hitting him, punching, kneeing in the gut. I also had fantasies before and during the funeral of the truth coming out. Not to shame him or his memory, but to be honest about it. A funeral, though, is a ritual. We come together to ritually lionize the dead, to comfort the bereaved, to leave unsaid those things best left unsaid. An hour for a glimpse at the casket, a hug, a few words from speakers, a ceremonial carrying of the coffin to the hearse, a cup of coffee and a muffin and see you at christmas. Grief for a rushed society.

I went to a funeral once that lasted three days. Everyone who came from outside the village was welcomed one at a time, with long speeches and greetings. Then their were hours of talks in the meeting house, where every person was given the chance to say their peice about the dead man.

Much of the ceremony was conducted in a language I didn't speak, so I don't know exactly what was said. Perhaps it was the same plattiudes as I heard (and spoke) at Stan's funeral, just repeated over and over.

But I would like to believe that there was scope over such a long funeral to speak the truth of a man. To remember his attributes as excatly what they were: some good, some bad, some sublime, some nefarious. And perhaps if we knew, at least at his death, the full truth of each man's life, then the shock of it would not be so great, the scandal not so scandalous, and the healing, therefore, not so tortuous.


As for Sue, we mentioned the abuse once, a night or two before the funeral. I asked her how she came to find out that her older sister had also been abused. She started to tell me, then snapped at me angrily to drop it. I don't know what angered her about it: reflecting on the memory; besmirching a deadman's name; or merely a topic she had grown tired of.

She told me it came out years later. Something her sister's husband had said to her mother. But she had told me long before that, although she didn't like the abuse, she had also felt rejected because her father abused her sister more than her.

It looks like Sue, who is normally very honest, lied to me. Perhaps that's why she snapped at me -- so I wouldn't ask her questions that would mean she would have to tell more and more of a lie. Thirty years on, and she's still not comfortable enough about the whole thing to merely say, "hey, I'm not really comfortable talking about this. Can we drop it?"


Sue has seemed in quite good spirits over the last week. She has mourned, to be sure, and is very sad at the loss of her father. But nonetheless, she seems somehow more laidback, more relaxed, a little freer and happier.

It might just be her week off of work, and the implicit permission that a crisis gives us not to worry about the normal routines. Or maybe it was because I was making an extra effort to look after her and do my bit around the house. Perhaps she was just putting the best face on things. Or perhaps, on some level, her father's passing was a release from her childhood abuse, and all the unhappy feelings she had from him in her youth -- his yelling, his indifference to her academic achievements, his complete incapacity to do housework or look after himself. All this was on top of the sexual abuse.

Does the death of an abuser help their victim get over the pain? It could be a release, of course. Or it could also mean that she could never get closure with him, now that he is not here to hear what he did to her, to apologize to her, to ask her forgiveness.


Too soon:

I got some books out of the library. Laura Davis' "The Courage to Heal" and "The Courage to Heal workbook," self help books for adult victims of childhood sexual abuse. I asked Sue months ago if she was interested, and she said yes, she'd have a look at them if they were from the library. She would buy them if they looked worthwhile.

So, I had some free time in the days between Stan's death and his funeral, and I got them out. Now I have them hidden in a stack of books, waiting for the right moment.

She has enough on her mind right now. I'm worried that if I gave her the books now, she would think I had a sexual agenda: "Your dad is dead, so now can I bone ya?"

On the other hand, this could be perfect timing, while all the emotions are fresh and raw. The books could help her find a healthy step forward and help heal newly reopened wounds.

But when a woman doesn't talk about her emotions, the man in her life is just flying blind. There is only so far you can get with deconstructing gestures, and parsing tone of voice. So who knows.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

9 1/2 years without sex???

So, "Brad", my younger cousin, is going through a rough patch in his life. I have been supporting him for a wee while, and I thought I knew him very well. So I was amazed to learn that he and his girlfriend of 9 1/2 years (they've been living together for 7), have never had intercourse.


She has no libido.

What's odder still about this is that she is his first girlfriend. So... he's a virgin. Well, they do have sexual relations of a sort, just not normal intercourse -- so I guess it depends on what your definition of virginity is. It's something she doles out to him as a sort of favor once or twice a week. She's bored by it, and so he's none to thrilled with the experience either.

He hopes to have children with her one day. I wonder how that is going to happen?

I am reminded of a couple I read about who actually got married and were together for some years before they had sex for the first time. She got pregnant, and that was the end of it. A couple of years later, she wanted another child, so they had sex again. She got pregnant, and that was the end of it again.

She had been badly sexually abused as a child, and had never recovered.

In the end, he left her and married someone else. They started a new family together, and had a normal sex life.

So I am left wondering... where do we draw the line? Should men in long-term sexless relationships cut their losses and find someone they feel more comfortable with? Or should they put up with years of frustration and lack of sexual fulfillment? And if they (or, rather, we) should put up with it. . . then why? To what end? We should live unfulfilled lives because our wives no longer have libidos and aren't willing to do anything about it?

Of course, there may be good reason to stay in an imperfect relationship. Kids; a family buisness; the reality that no relationship is perfect, etc. And, of course, it's different if the woman (or, for that matter, the man -- low libido can strike men, too!) is willing to get medical and/or psychological help to work her way through the block to her libido. But when her response is "shrug -- like it or lump it honney, it's who I am, what I am, where I am" then a man surely has to consider his options.

I am nowhere near the point of cutting my losses, but 9 1/2 years?!?! I mean _wow_! Just how long is a boy supposed to wait?

There's more to say on this, I'm sure, but it's late and I'm tired and losing my train of thought.
"Say goodnight, Gracie."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"It's not you, it's me"

A woman wrote in to an advice columnist recently, complaining that her husband had pulled back from the relationhip. The columnist replied that that was perfectly possible, and that the husband might be depressed. She should discuss that with his GP. BUT, the columnist noted that it was also possible that it was the woman who had changed, not her husband. If so, she needed to find other outlets for her energy (a hobby, new friends), rather than turn to her husband to make her life be more fulfilled.

This column spoke to me, because I've been feeling like Susan has been particularly absent from our relationship recently. But I've also thought... no, maybe it's me. Maybe I've become clingy and needy. How unsexy is that?!? I've realised I was unhappy with the way things were, and that she was unwilling or unable to meet my needs. So I've been reaching out to new friends, and finding excitement in new activities. I got my cello out for the first time in years, and had an excellent match of tennis with a friend.

It's felt great! So refreshing! So fulfilling! Somehow I was waiting for Sue to meet my needs, but by going out there and looking after myself, not only were my needs met, but, even better, I felt empowered in the process! I once again felt like the captain of my fate, master of my destiny... well, a little bit, anyway! (Being in a family is surely nothing if not a tradeoff between companionship and independence.)

But then I began to wonder about the endgame. Of course, I can go my own way and feel independent, happy and fulfilled. (And a bit lonely -- but that's another story.) But just as it's possible for a couple to be too clingy and codependent, so also can couples grow apart and learn to not love each other, not need each other, not want each other.

Sue and I went through just such a stage once upon a time.

So... right. Far enough apart that we meet our own needs, but close enough together that we don't lose touch.

This life business sure is a tricky one! Why is it that they teach Calculus and French in high schools, but not how to have a successful marriage? I know which is more important to me; which I want more for my children; and which will ultimately make me a more productive, happier, and more well adjusted member of society.

Yes, I can conjugate verbs with the best of them; decline nouns in my sleep; take the second derivative of binomial equations without batting an eyelash. But finding just the right balance between independence and intimacy in my marriage? Now that takes some serious effort!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Is it normal to have sex after marriage?

So, everyone jokes about how little sex there is after marriage.
And sex after kids? forget it!!!

And so we spend huge hours worrying about this. Talking about it. Reading books. Seeing the doctor, the shrink. Taking medications.

All, it seems, in pursuit of the notion that we should all have as much sex as we did in our twenties. Not doing it 2.5 times per week? Something is wrong! Never mind if you're in your 40s and have multiple small children, as well as two careers, multiple bills and the family dog to juggle.

The point is, maybe there is a stereotype that people don't have much sex after marriage (and especially after kids) because this is NORMAL! Now there's a radical thought! Perhaps some (much? most??) of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that we have over our collective lack of sex (ok, that I have over my personal lack of sex!) is based on the entirely false assumption that we should still be having sex like we did in that summer after the junior year of college.

Sure we (ok, I!) would love to be having that much sex again. But I would also love to be as fit as I was back then, too. And to have as good a memory. And as much hair. And... etc, etc, etc.

Of course, couples that are having that extra sex do seem to be enjoying it, (Bully for them!) but that doesn't make it somehow pathological that I am now so chaste.

I can worry all I like about sex, and sure, the topic can wind me up at times. But for a guy like me to worry about it says I am already doing pretty darn well on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
I mean, I am not worrying about my next meal, my job, my health, my family's health. We live in peace and prosperity and our family is reasonably harmonious. And it is only because of all of this that I can worry about (and indulge myself so far as to write a blog about!) sex as much as I do.

Looking at Maslow's hierarchy more closely, I am intrigued to see that it is not nearly so high as I assumed.
I am also intrigued to see that sex is listed in two different positions: once on the same level as food, clothing and shelter; and then again higher up along with friendship and family.

Hmm. It all seemed so simple when I started this posting. But that hierarchy has got me wondering again.
Sex as a basic physiological need?
Curiouser and curiouser.

This whole sex thing would be pretty hard to figure out even if it were something our society had a healthy discourse about.
As it is, it feels rather like the classic enigma wraped in a riddle, shrouded in a mystery.


How can a woman not want to talk to her husband about their relationship? I thought that's what women were supposed to be all about. Sure that's a stereotype, but stereotypes don't generally come from nowhere. I guess she is one of the outliers.

But, damn, hasn't she ever watched Oprah!?! Doesn't everyone know that communication is the key to a happy relationship?

And, no, we weren't talking about anything sensitive like her personal history. More generic stuff like, "why haven't you built the dog house yet, Mark?"

But getting to that was like pulling teeth. And she was angry that I wanted to talk at all. Asking her why it made her angry made her angrier still.


What's a boy to do?!?

Incidentally, I had a paranoid flurry this afternoon, wondering if she had cheated on me. Later on I was up some scaffolding which made me rather nervous. Would those tiny bolts and rotten-looking planks really hold my weight? I walked softly, and my imagination of how I might crash to the earth went into over-drive.

After an hour of walking around, I felt great -- as if I was on terra firma. And the anxieties about infidelity disappeared, completely replaced by the exhileration of wandering around 30 feet up in the air on a beautify sunny day.

And I realized that these two experiences were linked. I had anxiety about heights, which sent my imagination into overdrive, making my anxiety worse. I tested out my theories of plummeting to the earth by walking around. I didn't fall. I gained confidence. And soon all thought of rotten wood or loose bolts disappeared from my mind as if nothing more than a dream.

I think that's why I wanted so badly to reach out to Sue tonight to talk. Subconsciously my anxieties about her fidelity had not yet been tested and disproven. Not that I wanted, or needed, to raise that question with her directly. Rather, I think I needed to reconnect with her emotionally. When I walked on the scaffolding, my fear was that the wood or the bolts wouldn't hold me -- but I didn't check a single bolt, or examine any of the wood. My groundless fears were answered simply by walking around and not falling. I came to feel safe. So it was with Sue. I didn't want to probe the technical question of fidelity. I think subconcsciously I wanted to connect with her; to feel safe with her; to form a bond with her. With that bond of communication in place, the anxieties disappear of their own accord. Without it my mind becomes their plaything in which they fester and multiply, driving me nuts, and no doubt subtly undermining our relationship as well, even if I never give voice to them.